Cambodia 2nd January to 11 th January 2018
We left Vietnam and took a fast boat up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. The boat took about 30 people and we had the option of sitting in quite plush airline type seats or sitting up on the covered deck. We chose to sit on the deck and enjoy the view and the fresh air. Most of the boat were tourists like us, mainly Australian and a few Americans. The boat crew stowed the luggage carefully in the hold mindful of it not moving and causing a problem with the ballast . Our boat was very similar to the one which sank off Indonesia only a few days before. We had a guide with us whose job it was to look after us and help us get through customs, she was very enthusiastic but spoke no english and wore a hijab so I couldn’t even lip read. She did keep a watchful eye on our luggage and took lots of selfies with us.
The boat travelled at speed and slowed down once for a dug out canoe to load more passengers on board. The vastness of the Mekong became very apparent as our little boat headed North for the capital of Cambodia with the bargescarrying all sorts of items, including sand and cement,often so overloaded you had to look twice to see if it was in fact a sunken boat or was still moving.
We stopped twice enroute for river side immigration procedures, the boat crew took our passports and our money and we all got off the boat, had a dubious coffee, has the water been boiled being the key factor and purchased some very delicious rice cakes with peanuts for which I have developed a liking. Our passports then stayed with the immigration officials , an American lone female traveller was not allowed back on the boat for some reason and off we headed at speed in the boat to the next immigration stop where our passports were returned complete with Visa and the American was allowed back on the boat. None of the passengers really knew quite what was happening
The boat then carried on the journey travelling at about 25 knots, a journey which took about 5 hours including the two stops. It was great to see the working river and to see those living,fishing and working on it.
We arrived at Phnom Penn where we were met by Mark one of the Co owners of the travel company who was to be our guide. He initially reminded me of a channel four horse racing pundit who wore a deer stalker. He turned out to be very knowledgeable spoke Khmer the language of Cambodia and was good company. He had a Cambodian Khymer girlfriend which was the for reason for him taking on doing this part of the tour. She joined us on the tour.
We checked into a lovely boutique hotel called 252 run by a Swiss couple. Great rooms and lovely court yard swimming pool with nice places to relax.Cambodia was as hot if not hotter than Southern Vietnam so we made good use of the pool.
We headed off for lunch and a tour of the town with Mark, taking in the markets, colonial buildings and ending up at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC )for a drink overlooking the river watching the barges chug along with the slightest swell almost certain to sink them and then back down empty looking like a completely different vessel.The club was like a blast from the past, colonial architecture, old school leather seats and some great pictures of Cambodian history, references to some of the well known war correspondents who hung out there during the numerous comflicts and included a picture of when the Khymer rouge and Pol Pot were welcomed into the city.
Phnom Penn saw a lot of war action and the view of foreign attaches and journalists was that if the FCC was open then normal life was resuming, if it was shut which even when there was serious fighting taking place was very rare then there was a crisis.
The next day we were taken by a local guide to see the various sights, which include the Royal Palace were the current King still has accommodation and to see some of the Cambodian war museums/ war memorials.Pictures of the current King and his mother are all over Cambodia and it is clear to see that the Cambodian Queen mother models herself on our queen
We were joined by one more person for a few days of our tour. Corrina was an interesting person, she sounded like Patsey out of Absolutely Fabulous without the drink or drug references. I went into a shop with her were she was buying a shawl and felt I was taking part in an Ab Fab episode and Jennifer Saunders would pop up at any moment. She herself was allegedly a tour guide and also reckoned she had had not an insignificant part in both a Bridget Jones and two Harry Potter films. However did not have an equity card, “Darling I don’t bother with that sort of thing “. However what was fascinating was that her father had overseen Resistance Activity in Corsica during the war being part of the SOE service, had founded Hendon Police college and been a Polar explorer. Ralph Fiennes being a regular in their household.There is much information about him online.Clearly a man with impressive leadership qualities. Corrina was only with us for 5 nights which was probably enough, she then headed off to Laos.
Travel around Phnom Penh was easy by motorbike Tuk Tuk, they were comfortable and efficient and very reasonable in price. If you wanted anything a little more expensive but also with added security thrown in the local police force were moonlighting as taxi drivers or bike drivers using their police vehicles. Apparently very popular with anyone who has been to the casino and had a good night
After the Royal Palace we went to the Khmer Rouge genocide museum and the Killing Fields.
The genocide museum was in a former Khmer Rouge prison, the prison was a converted school which was exactly the same design as the schools I have visited and taught in when in Lagos, in fact it could have been Stella Soetan’s Lagos City High School where I have spent many happy hours.
The classrooms had been converted into small brick cells. The gymnastic equipment had been turned into use for torture, hanging people upside down, sticking their heads in vats of filthy water trying to elicit names of others who might be professional educated people who the Khymer Rouge wanted to get rid of. The prison was known as S21.Only twelve people survived from this prison, two of which were at the museum selling their stories.I found this experience the most disturbing of all our war memorial / museum visits.Our guide lost his father, his grandfather and his younger sister with no idea what happened to them or where they might be buried. His wife nearly starved to death.Many people evacuated out to the country and lived the life of peasant farmers, life was tough as a farmer anyway at that time and so in some places the Khymer Rouge did not make a huge difference. In total one in Six Cambodians were either killed, missing or starved to death under the Khymer Rouge regime.
From there we went to the Killing Fields the name which is associated with the film which was about an American journalist investigating what was going on in Cambodia. Essentially the Killing Fields are an area of ground were Cambodian prisoners were taken once they had no space to dispose of bodies at the S 21 prison. They were taken there and executed, the fields are areas of ground which are cordoned off to mark the mass graves including where large numbers of women and children were brutally killed and buried.Originally the Cambodians stored all the skulls found during the investigation of the site in huge piles in a traditional house at the Killing Fields site. However they then decided to build a proper memorial tower, incorporating the skulls ,being a stark reminder of the horror of the Pol Pot and Khymer Rouge regime. A quality memorial tower has been built and every year there is a formal remembrance/commemoration. The tower now contains the skulls of all those found in the mass graves, they are divided into groups according to age , with a different age being in the glass centre column of each floor. The rest of the site could be described as rustic, with shallow indentations in the ground which were mass graves. Chickens wandering and scratching around in the grass, if you did not know what had taken place you would assume it was farm land. A few signs tell you if you discover any bones let an official know and a sign identifying a tree where music was played so the local farmers at the time could not hear the executions when they took place
I had not expected the memorial to contain skulls, and so was rather shocked at what I found as I opened the door, however it has been done to shock and a sobering thought was all this was happening whilst I was blissfully unaware of the horrors taking place in Cambodia whilst in my final years at school and starting University.
We left Phnom Penh and headed for the temple town of Siem Reap which is some 6 hours drive north west of Phnom Penh.On the way we stopped at a market which sold a range of insects including spiders ready to eat.During the war many Cambodians were starving and so eating anything including insects became quite common, it appears they got to like them and they are now sold as a delicacy.
We arrived in Siem Reap checked into our hotel, it had a lovely swimming pool on the roof which was well used by us as it was so hot and humid 35 degrees and 90 % humidity or more every day, even though it was winter.
We went off to get our three day ticket for Angkor Wat that evening and visit a temple to see the sun go down This was the start of two and a half days of temple visits. I wasn’t sure I would be able to sustain my interest in temples for that length of time but I have to say I found them all amazing and fascinating. There are so many of them, their size their complexity, the engineering skill in building such huge, intricate and extensive temples is just phenomenal. Over the time we were there we went to see nine different temples, on the first evening we went to see the sunset at our first temple and it would have been a monument worth seeing even if it had been the only one. The place was heaving with tourists all sitting on the top of the temple with their feet hanging over the edge looking from a distance rather like the crew of a large ocean going yacht all sitting on one side of the boat. The temples had been built by both Hindu and Buddhist religions and each religion had taken over the others temples at some time meaning that some carvings had been cut out or areas rebuilt. It was a at times confusing to know who had built what and who had refurbished it. The various Kings through the ages all built temples as a legacy of their reign.All the temples had a similar design, great long stone causeways leading to the entrances which were always ornate, most had exits and entrances facing East and West and some had four, directly in line with the four corners of the compass. Many looked like a rectangular wedding cake with up to eight layers.There were really steep steps up to each layer and you could clamber up and down to your hearts content. There was one particularly steep temple which had four layers and the steps were really really steep,hands and feet job to get up and extreme care to come down, so much so our guide would not come up and told us after we had been up and down he had seen broken legs and even a death take place on those steps. The temples all had huge corridors with ornate windows which looked like turned wooden chair legs but were in fact made of stone.There were the most magnificent carvings in their hundreds on every temple. They had designated corridors for certain ranking of people, the King and the monks having the most prestigious entrances and corridors.
The most famous temples were Angkor Wat and the one used in the Tomb Raider film called Ta Nei and the Ta Prom ruins. One of my favourite was built by one of the Kings and included the elephant terrace which was a very wide terrace decorated with the carvings of elephants. The King would ceremoniously come out along the huge terrace to speak to his people.
Angkor means city and Wat means temple, so Angkor Wat is a temple in its own right but also the name given to a vast area of over 200 large exceptionally preserved temples, to see any one of which would be worthy of a significant journey.
Our guide Nat was excellent, he lived in Siem Reap knew the temples well, spoke good english but above all new were to go to avoid the crowds so we often found ourselves at a magnificent temple with no one else around, that made it very special and atmospheric, especially the Tomb Raider temple, not that I know who Laura Croft is but the making of the film did a lot for the town of Siem Reap.
What was surprising was the Angkor Wat estate of temples was lost to the jungle until they were rediscovered by A French Archaeologiist in The 1950s. They had been lost to the jungle up to that time. The vie is that local people probably new of one or two but the memory of the huge estate of temples had been lost.
We left Siem Reap by boat to travel to Batambong. Batambong is not especially well known other than being a traditional Cambodian town and has the Bamboo railway. What was special about it was the magnificent boat trip to get ther.
We arrived at the port where there were hundreds of colourful boats and lots of people wanting to take your luggage hire you a boat etc. We had a boat to ourselves with a captain who had cool beer, cool water from an icebox with large lumps of ice which are delivered by motorbike and sawn off to your required size. He had also provided hammocks. We set off at speed along with the public ferry up the channel towards Toni Sape lake, our party included Mark, his girlfriend the captain of the boat who only had one working arm and a deck hand who wore a black mask all the time. His mask probably due to the Nissan lorry engine in the rear and the 5 gallon containers of petrol with a bit of rag in the top. Fortunately no one smoked in the boat!!!
The boat headed across the Lake encountering small fishing boats and lots of nets with twig floats, rather like someone’s huge cuttings tied up with string. We went through a bird reserve which was an area of wet land and we navigated through narrow channels with the propeller being heaved out of the water as necessary. This then opened up into a much wider channel of the SangKae River where we came across a floating village which was vibrant and bustling with children heading off on boats to their floating school, the grocer moving around the houses in their very well stocked dhow, people fishing from boats are standing in the water setting up nets.
This floating village had been encouraged to set up a local enterprise using the water hyacinth which has become a problem in Asian rivers. The women dry the water hyacinth stems and then make a range of baskets, mats and boxes all dyed with local products. We stopped off bought a few items, chatted with the locals including a vendor selling sugar cane to the women working on the hyacinth stems, he was one of the first people we came across with an artificial leg caused by the numerous land mines laid during the war. Although a big clean up operation has taken place and Princess Diana was a patron of one of the main organisations undertaking this process, there are still many lurking to catch the unwary, in fact one of the temples we visited had a very defined walking path with warnings about land mines if you left the path.
We continued on our way up the river, watching the locals go about their daily lives in this peaceful setting which was only disturbed by young men roaring up and down in their long tail boats, the European equivalent to a motorbike or car.
Flocks of storks circled high above the boat and the journey was a delight and is one of the many highlights of this trip.
It was extremely hot and we had learnt from the Cambodians that a cotton scarf is essential attire in 30 plus degree heat, a strange idea but in fact ideal, it stops the sweat running down the back of your neck and is handy to wipe the sweat off your brow and avoid factor 50 dripping into your eyes.
Early in the day I enjoyed sitting on the bow of the boat but by 10 o clock it was searing heat and so I retreated to the cover of the boat and relaxed in a hammock to which our host kept bringing ice cold beer. I think all Monday mornings should be like this.
On and on we went up the river, passing grocery boats, fishing contraptions, floating pagodas, floating pool clubs. We gave a local a lift back to the floating health centre where we were given a very large bag of dried shrimps. I first encountered the shrimps in a green mango salad which I was looking forward to eating and helped my self to a generous serving, only to discover it came with a generous helping of dried shrimps mixed in and well hidden. It was not a good experience the first taste was of delicious mango followed by the horror of eating what felt like sharp fish scales, a closer smell detected they were fish and closer inspection they were shrimps, UGH.
From the floating village we came to the village on stilts, many houses high out of the water as the river can rise and fall up to 10 metres depending on the season. As the water was quite low good agricultural land could be found on the banks of the river which was being cultivated. Despite the housing in many cases looking quite primitive and ramshackle we saw four fairly new tractors and most houses had modern generators / pumps with blue pipes dangling in the river so they could extract water to irrigate their crops.
On up the river until we came to a confluence and we took the river route to the left, the water was low in places requiring the deck hand to lift the propeller out of the water and fend off lumps of water hyacinth. This led us to the nomadic group of people who live most of the year in house boats, but when the river water falls they beach their boats and create shacks on the Bank from which they farm for a few months until the rains appear again. Their boats were well patched with curved structures which were the living quarters.
The whole trip took about eight hours but during that time we saw such a range of rural life.
Our destination was Batambong which is a rural Cambodian town, famous for it’s Bamboo railway which is not a railway as we know it. It is a railway track used by locals to carry their produce into market but there is no train. The locals had their own platform made out of bamboo hence it’s name and put a generator/ engine on the back and off they went. It was single track and so negotiation and breaks were key when something was coming in the opposite direction.
Whilst in Batambong we had a tour set up by enterprising students from the local university, who are guides and hire a Tuk Tuk and take you round to see the local cottage industries, the making of rice wine and liquor, rice paper making and drying bananas. The banana production was my favourite, four generations living in the same property, grandma ,a little lady with no teeth but a huge smile well into her 80s, but looked even older,spoke fluent French and had somehow avoided the atrocities of the Khymer Rouge. She was only with us for a short time having just come back from the Pagoda but Had such a zest for life.
From Batambong we headed back to Phnom Penh, stopping off at a riverside town, where we saw more houses on stilts and a thriving market with produce coming down the river on bright blue boats and little shallow dug out canoes. A visit to the police station toilets led to the discovery of a long wriggling black snake as Sue walked in, she was brave, This provided much amusement for the locals who had not seen two grey haired Europeans get so animated for a long time. The local police man made an attempt to arrest it but it escaped custody. I suspect it will be a tail retold by many over the coming days.
Back through the Cambodian countryside to Phnom Penh and the 252 Hotel, a swim and then meeting up with someone Sue knew from Uganda who is working in Cambodia and his partner, we met them on our first time through Phnom Penn and ended up down a very narrow alley in a pop up restaurant drinking champagne and eating the most delicious roast pork.Up market local life!!
Our time in Cambodia came to an end, what a lovely country and delightful people for whom I am full of admiration. There are few if any Cambodians who have not been affected by the genocide, many with no idea what happened to loved family members. They have picked themselves up and got on with life, the country is developing fast and whilst there is poverty it is nothing like that witnessed in the African countries. The younger people see opportunities for them in the future and are quick to move to where the work is. Many of the old traditions will I suspect die out, in particular the life of the nomadic boat people who live on the Sangkae River and Toni Sape lake, they are diminishing in numbers as their children see opportunities elsewhere for a different life style. I feel privileged to have shared their river and past fleetingly through a day in their lives.
So the next leg of our journey is a flight to Vietnam and the ancient town of Hoi An.